'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

From the Archives: Fear Eats the Soul 

Here at American Leftist, it is not necessary to restrict film comment to current releases. There is, as we all know, the world of DVD, and almost everything, unless it is too avant garde, obscure or enmeshed in copyright disputes, is readily available, even the works of foreign directors that received limited to non-existent distribution in the US when their films were first released.

So, today, let's examine a great, representative film of one my favorite directors, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In 1971, he, the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema, personally met Douglas Sirk. Sirk was the master of Hollywood melodrama in the 1950s, but his mastery was only then being belatedly recognized, years after he had retired to Switzerland.

Some say that Fassbinder discovered the films of Sirk as a result of this meeting, but that is probably an exaggeration. After all, he spent much of his childhood in the movie theatre while his mother worked at home, and he must have seen dubbed versions of Sirk's films. Accordingly, it is probably more accurate to say that Fassbinder remembered movies that he had forgotten, movies that made little impression upon him in his youth, but now reemerged as revelations.

In any event, it was a fortuitous encounter. Sirk's films, as acknowledged by Fassbinder in many public writings and statements, provided him with a cinematic language to address themes about the way people relate to one another while being subjected to societal pressures to conform. Fassbinder remade one of these films, All That Heaven Allows as Fear Eats the Soul.

All That Heaven Allows has been described as a women's weepie in the argot of time, a May-September romance, starring Rock Hudson as a bohemian young landscaper who falls in love with a widowed socialite played by Jane Wyatt. Sirk took a story that he found implausible and transformed it into a withering condemnation of provincial, small town American life. No wonder it took film critics 15 years to appreciate it.

Fassbinder explosively transformed All That Heaven Allows into an intimate, emotional story about a romance between Ali, a young Morrocan guest worker, a Gastarbaiter, and Emmi, a widowed 60 year old German cleaning woman. Both Ali and Emmi are lonely, Ali because he is isolated and ostracized, even from other guest workers, and Emmi because she is no longer considered relevant or important in the economically successful Germany of the 1970s. Her adult children make periodic, perfunctory visits.

Such a simple story opens the door for Fassbinder to interweave many of his enduring themes into a melodramatic story that draws the audience into it. His affection for marginalized and abandoned people in society, the extent to which pressure to conform separates people from happiness, his belief, bordering on anarchism, that people, in the goodness of their hearts, know what is best for themselves and others, but lack the confidence to act upon it, and conversely, the extent to which people are capable of inflicting the most terrible cruelties upon one another in the most subtle ways.

In a Fassbinder film, scenes of violence, infrequent as they are (and, I can't recall any in Fear Eats the Soul, unless you count the smashing of a TV), are moments of rest between these frightening instances of what he called everyday fascism. One heartrending example of such behaviour takes place after Emmi has been replaced as a cleaning woman by a young immigrant gypsy, or, possibly, a Polish woman, and we see this young woman timidly sitting alone to eat her lunch on the steps of a winding staircase, while the older German cleaning women gossip amongst one another farther down. The film's ending is a statement of profound sadness about the ephemerality of love, and how, upon attainment, it can be destroyed by forces beyond our control.

Fassbinder used this film, as he did others, to display his respect for what his contemporaries disparagingly called My Father's Kino, the German film and television productions of the 1950s and early 1960s, an endeavor that struggled in the shadows of the glamour of Hollywood and the excitement of the French New Wave, by casting the popular Brigitte Mira as Emmi. He engaged pop culture; he did not abandon it. Ali is performed with admirable understatement by El Hedi ben Salem, who was his partner at the time.

Fassbinder also updated Sirk's visual approach for contemporary audiences. Despite being very low budget, there is an opulence, a skilled use of color and location set design that frames the emotional states of the characters. He integrated the Sirkean studio visual style into the world outside, as demonstrated by the brief clip from Fear Eats the Soul at the beginning of this entry. Note the staged seating of Ali and Emmi within a sea of empty yellow chairs at the outdoor restaurant, which, along with the reaction of the restaurant staff, underscores themes of ostracism and conformity.

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